An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 186

Clinton Howell Antiques - June 20, 2022 - Issue 186

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

As the apex predators on this planet, we more or less get to call the shots on who or what lives or dies. This isn't a facetious observation--a bear known to intrude on campers and endanger them is either re-located or shot. Learned animal behavior that is anti-human or too intrusive has a solution that always falls on the plus side for the human. It's not fair, but that's the way it goes. This happens to be the truth about vetting. The vetting committee always gets the last word, whether their assessment is correct or not. Almost every dealer and former vetter that I know understands this, accepts it and feels that we, as the trade, should accept the vetting committee's ruling, just or unjust. I endorse this, but I also think that there should be some attempt made to reform vetting--possibly a proper assessment of those people tapped as vetters in the first place, particularly when there are known animosities between individuals. Vetting needs more thought put into it--there is no question about this. I can't speak for the trade on this, but I would suspect that a substantial number of dealers who might agree with this statement. 

But there are other issues in this industry--likely far more threatening in the long run and not that simple--facing the world of art and antiques. I don't think I am able to go in depth on any of them here--simply put, they are cultural repatriation or restitution, anti-money laundering (AML) and endangered species materials used when the items were made. For furniture dealers, the endangered species issues are the most tendentious. The sad plight of elephants, really an issue about loss of habitat, and our dwindling timber resources, have caused NGOs to leap into action and create anti-ivroy legislation (as well as other endangered species materials) that bans their trading, even if the material is a hundred years old or older. Pieces that were made, even with small bits of ivory, are being stripped of ivory and re-inlaid with ivorine or some other substitute. It makes no sense--it certainly isn't helping the elephant. 

The solution to any and all problems is, of course, two edged--responsibility and accountability on both sides of the discussion. Dealers need to call out criminal behavior when they see it (there is a KYC or "know your customer" industry growing in the art trade that is supposed to be able to help dealers know if their customers are sketchy in any way--money laundering, smuggling, etc., and more importantly, laws need to be written that focus on the problem--not blanket legislation that the NGOs and other groups can call progress because it isn't. The trickiest issue of all is cultural patrimony, an issue that suffers from incessant chauvinism and requires good will for any solution. CINOA, a French acronym for the largest federation of art and antiques dealers around the world, wants to encourage rationality to bear on legislation because we do believe in solutions. CINOA's aim is to neither be the camper or the bear, but to figure out how both sides can co-exist. Isn't that what we were given brains for?